Burned Out At Work

Feeling exhausted, cynical, or helpless at work? If so, you may be burned out.

Job stress, work strain or disengagement are all ways to describe a complex condition known as burnout. According to a recent study in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers Christina Maslach at the University of California and Michael Leiter of Acadia University, note that burnout is rapidly becoming a concern for companies wanting to ensure workers are engaged at their job.

The researchers also point out that burnout costs – both staff and companies alike. Staff can develop headaches, gastrointestinal problems, muscle tension, hypertension, colds and flu. They experience fatigue, emotional exhaustion and decreased work performance. Their job has a negative impact on their families and relationships. Burnout may also predict depression.

Organizations suffer too. Burned-out staff are dissatisfied with their jobs and show low commitment, are more likely to be absent, think about quitting or actually leave the job.

Burnout is a psychological response to constant stress on the job and it includes three components:

Burned-out staff are exhausted by overwork. They feel depleted of emotional and physical energy. This usually occurs when workers have been overextending themselves for a long time without a chance to relax and recharge either at work or at home. Once staff become exhausted they begin to distance emotionally and intellectually from their work in order to cope.


Once exhausted staff are forced to cope with high levels of fatigue, they become increasingly detached from the job. They seem negative and callous in an attempt to distance themselves and the job. Exhaustion and cynicism operate hand in hand amongst burned out workers. Cynicism is an adaptive response to feeling exhausted. By distancing oneself from the job, staff members hope to get an emotional break from the relentlessness they feel.

Burned out workers do not feel a sense of accomplishment. By contrast they feel incompetent and inadequate at work. They experience a decline in productivity and performance due to fatigue and negative attitudes towards work. When staff do not feel they are achieving their goals, getting the job done or accomplishing tasks, they experience increases in dissatisfaction with themselves and the job.

There are seven causes of worker burnout:

1. Increased Workloads
Increased workloads can cause exhaustion. It is critically important that staff have time to recover from intense work periods such as dealing with a crisis or meeting a tight deadline. If workers have had to put in long hours without a break on a regular basis, burnout is inevitable. Too often, long hours become the norm when once they were requested as a special, one-time event. When this happens, staff are likely to become fatigued and get burned out.

2. Lack of Control
Staff need personal control at work. There are two ways a lack of control affects employees. Most commonly, employees experience role conflict in which they may be given the responsibility to see that a project or task is completed but they lack the authority to make decisions that ensure the venture is a success. Another way a lack of personal control increases the chances of burnout is when staff are unclear about work priorities and management gives them no clear direction—everything becomes a priority. This kind of ambiguity makes it hard to know where to put ones energy making exhaustion more likely.

3. Few Rewards
If staff aren’t rewarded for their work, either through adequate compensation, organizational recognition or acknowledgement from peers, they are more likely to lack a sense of accomplishment, which can lead to burn out. Rewarding and recognizing employees is important in preventing burn out. Workers who are not rewarded feel their work is unimportant to the organization and that there contributions have little value.

4. Lack of Community
When people work in a collegial atmosphere, they tend not to burn out. An environment where conflict is resolved and where there is a sense of support and team work helps stave off exhaustion. When there is a lack of community and support, burnout is a risk. And it becomes even more of a possibility when supervisor support around balancing the workload is missing.

5. Lack of Fairness
Fairness is key for many employees, to the point that they may say the outcome of a decision is not as important as the process by which the decision is made. If the process is fair, then the decision is more easily accepted. When decisions are seen as equitable, burn out is less prevalent. Workplaces that lack a natural give and take between employer and employer promote burnout. If supervisors are seen as supportive and fair, employee burn out is less of a concern.

6. Values Clashes
If the values of the organization do not match staff values, employees end up feeling as though they are working at the job they have to perform, rather than the one they want to do. This values mismatch can lead to burn out. Staff become exhausted then cynical in this situation and find their sense of accomplishment at work suffers. When one’s values oppose those of the organization, it becomes a matter of time before workers either burn out and leave or both.

7. Job-Person Mismatches
When staff are in situations where their skill level, expertise or experience do not match the position they have assumed, burn out can result. If employees feel either underutilized or over their heads, or if staff are not rewarded adequately for their efforts, they are susceptible to exhaustion, cynicism and under performance. If a staff-job mismatch is temporary burnout is unlikely. Ensuring that there is a fit between the staff member and the job he’s been recruited to do helps prevent burnout.

To prevent burnout, organizations should watch staff closely for signs of exhaustion or cynicism and intervene to deal with the cause. It is also recommended that companies stay alert to unfairness and, if this problem exists in the organization, deal with it immediately. The time between the onset of exhaustion or cynicism and the trigger of unfairness creating a catalyst for burn out is important. The timely reduction of unfair practices, as well as identifying and dealing with exhausted or cynical personal can make the difference between a burned out workforce and an engaged one.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at sunmail@newmangrigg.com
Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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